In my last year of college I worked at the Store 24 on Boylston across the street from the Boston Public Library. It was no better and no worse than any convenience store in the US. Being in the downtown of a big city, we got some colorful customers, from disheveled drunks to yuppies to three transvestites who usually showed up around 11:00 PM.
My favorite customer was a homeless woman named Mary. She was always very polite, even when other people were rude to her. One time another homeless woman, a mean old bag lady with a wig and a manner of dress that suggested she came from old money, attacked Mary. Mary wanted to use the microwave and opened it not realizing that the other woman already had something in there. She assumed that Mary was up to no good and hit her with her umbrella and shouted all sorts of insults at her. Made a big scene. She was incensed that I would not throw Mary out of the store, so she walked out, declaring she'd never shop there again. Throughout the encounter Mary remained calm and apologetic. She didn't seem to comprehend the woman's rage but she was nevertheless a bit shaken by it. Over the next couple months I saw the madwoman show up a few times, peek in, and leave in a tizzy if she saw me behind the counter.
Sometimes I used to sit with Mary out on the sidewalk. She was always happy to hang out and shoot the breeze, always had a smile for me. She told me about her life story, about giving birth to her son two blocks away on Comm. Ave, about how her kids wanted to put her in a mental institution, about how she didn't see herself as homeless but as someone who chose to "live outside." She disappeared that winter. I got worried when spring came and I still didn't see her. Perhaps her son had her locked up after all. I was relieved when I saw her on a visit to Boston a few years later. She was sitting on a residential street in the South End. She seemed exactly the same. We sat and talked for a while. But when I asked her if I could take her picture, she said she would ask me to leave if I did so. I put my camera down and everything was cool again.
On the day I got hired my boss warned me about TEGLY, or Tobacco-Educated Gay and Lesbian Youth. They were a group of underage kids who conducted cigarette stings on convenience stores. Any clerk who sold them smokes was slapped with a $300 fine, plus another fine for the store. I was told to check everyone's age thoroughly. One night a girl who looked like she was 17 or 18 wanted to buy a pack of Camels. I asked for her ID. She said that she left it in her dorm, but that she really was 18 and a student at Emerson College. I said that I believed her but I needed to see the ID anyway. She got mad and tried to break me down through abuse. I didn't budge and she left in a huff. She returned half an hour later and threw her driver's license at me. I saw Jessica Something-or-other, age 18. As I reached up for the Camels, she grabbed her license and stormed out.
The worst aspect of the job was selling lottery tickets. First of all, the machine was some huge, primitive monstrosity from a time when computers were as big as houses. It broke down a lot. But also it was depressing and ethically questionable. I felt like a drug dealer supplying a bunch of addicts. The same poor and elderly people would come in every day and blow their government checks on tickets. They'd get aggressive if the machine was down that day. In the event that they won a couple bucks, they'd use the money to buy more tickets.
One guy who used to come in and lose every day brought in his son on his eighteenth birthday. It was a big moment for the kid, being old enough now to play the lottery just like his dear old dad. He looked over his shoulder as the kid rubbed the silver off with a coin. As they walked out the door a moment later, he put his arm around the boy and said, "Better luck tomorrow, son."